Image Detail: “Jesus Goes to His Execution” by Doug Blanchard
My long journey with the queer Christ reached a milestone this month with the publication of my new book The Passion of Christ: A Gay Vision.
The book features paintings of Jesus as a gay man of today in a modern city by New York artist Douglas Blanchard.
I decided to write about Blanchard’s Passion because the images touched me so deeply from the moment I first saw them in 2005. In 24 powerful images, the contemporary Christ figure is taunted by fundamentalists, tortured and crucified, only to rise again and enjoy homoerotic moments with God. His surprisingly diverse friends join him on a journey from suffering to freedom.
The paintings break the deadly illusion that Jesus belongs exclusively to a particular time or group. A queer Passion is crucial now because Christianity is being used to justify discrimination against LGBT people. The book speaks not only to the LGBT community but to everyone who is passionate about building a more just world.
“Christ is one of us in my pictures,” Blanchard says. “In His sufferings, I want to show Him as someone who experiences and understands fully what it is like to be an unwelcome outsider.” Blanchard is an art professor and self-proclaimed “very agnostic believer” who is active in the Episcopal Church.
He painted the Passion from 2001 to 2005, using the series to grapple with his own faith struggles as a New Yorker who witnessed the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
But his Passion paintings are on a journey that is far from over.
His gay Jesus continued to be treated as an “unwelcome outsider” almost as soon as the Passion book was released in mid-October. We fought a successful battle with what appeared to be censorship and discrimination based on sexual orientation at Facebook. The social media giant blocked the advertisements purchased to promote the book’s Facebook page.
They sent a message explaining that they rejected the ad because “Ads may not use images that are shocking. Prohibited images include Accidents, car crashes, dead or dismembered bodies, ghosts, zombies, ghouls, and vampires.”
What?! The picture that upset them shows Jesus carrying his cross through a hostile crowd with gun-toting guards and news reporters who aim cameras at him. Titled “Jesus Goes to His Execution,” it has been one of the least controversial images in the series—until now.
One purpose of the Passion book is to reawaken people to the reality that violence is unacceptable and shocking.
But Facebook publishes crucifixes all the time. We strongly suspected that our ad was singled out because of the gay content.
Hundreds of friends “liked” our page anyway as news of the controversy spread. When Gay Star News contacted Facebook for a comment, the social media company reversed its decision and “resurrected” the ad.
I consider this a win for the power of the people and the press. In a strange and holy twist, the controversy over the Passion book ad brought even more attention the ads would have. International news reports in numerous languages are posted on the book’s website.
It reminds me of Genesis 50:20: “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.” Facebook didn’t know what it was up against!
Many people would like to leave Jesus in the past, but Blanchard’s Passion brings him alive in the present.
The artist takes the most important narrative in Western culture and rescues it from fundamentalists and also from over-familiarity. The contemporary clothing and locations are actually more visually striking than the gay aspect.
In the book each image is accompanied by an essay that I wrote about its meaning, artistic and historical context, Biblical basis and LGBT significance, plus a short meditation with a scripture and one-line prayer. The Passion is placed in a larger context in an introduction by the artist and an afterword by Toby Johnson, comparative religion scholar and author of Gay Spirituality.
When I first held the book in my own hands, I was impressed to find that the book itself is a work of art with lavish full-color reproductions and an elegant design. The Passion of Christ: A Gay Vision (ISBN 194067140X) is published by the Apocryphile Press, a religion Berkeley publisher specializing in books on religion, spirituality, philosophy and poetry.
The purpose of reflecting on the Passion is not necessarily to worship Christ, but to remember the ongoing cycle of human violence, and to seek a way to move from suffering to freedom.
After years of wrestling with and writing about the images in Doug’s gay Way of the Cross, I see the Passion as the ultimate affirmation that God stands in solidarity with all people.
Image via Rev. Kittredge Cherry